Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Henry Hilton and His West Hempstead Connection - a Matter of Poetic Justice

When Garden City founder A. T. Stewart died childless in 1876, he left his enormous estate (estimated to be the third largest in the US behind the Astors' and Vanderbilts') in control of his private counsel, Henry Hilton. Hilton (after whom Hilton Ave. in Garden City is named) carries three big stains on his legacy.

First, he was one of the most notorious anti-Semites in 19th century America. Stewart left one of the most opulent hotels of its day, the Grand Union in Saratoga Springs, in the hands of Hilton, and when Jewish financier Joseph Seligman took his family up there in 1877 for a vacation, Hilton caused a national sensation when he infamously denied them entry. Hilton's hatred of Jews was rivaled by future LIRR President Austin Corbin, who followed Hilton's lead by barring Jews from his magnificent Manhattan Hotel in Coney Island. Together with Corbin, Hilton formed the Society for the Suppression of Jews where, at the inaugural meeting, it was proclaimed, "If this is a free country, why can't we be free of Jews?".

Second, Hilton had a purported close association with the corrupt Tweed ring, which was likely the cause that prevented Stewart from being approved as Treasury Secretary after the latter's nomination to that post by President U. S. Grant.

And the third blemish of Hilton's lasting legacy was his squandering of Stewart's almost limitless fortune. (One study estimated Stewart's net worth in today's dollars to be $70 billion, making him the seventh richest American ever when measuring his private wealth as a percentage of the economy). In the 1870s, A. T. Stewart & Co., the nation's largest dry goods business and first mega department store, was left to Hilton's management. But by the 1890s Hilton ran the business into the ground. A young, up and coming Jewish attorney named Henry Morgenthau (father of Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., and grandfather of Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau) was hired as legal advisor to Hilton's brother-in-law and business partner just before the store's assets were sold for pennies on the dollar. Morgenthau later recalled the poetic justice involved with Hilton being driven out of business principally by competition from the Jewish firms B. Altman and Stern's.

Perhaps another modicum of poetic justice is the fact that Hilton is a great candidate for the "separated at birth" files with his twin - Jewish author and NYT columnist Thomas Friedman.

But I digress.

The bottom line from all this is that Hilton was not a very good guy. What is not well known, however, is that Hilton had a conspicuous albeit inadvertent hand in shaping West Hempstead into what it is today. Allow me to explain.

The first railroad to roll through WH was the New York & Hempstead RR, completed in 1870, which ran from Valley Stream to a terminus in Hempstead Village. A station was built just south of Hall's Pond and was named Norwood, and a small settlement sprouted up there. Mismanagement and a couple terrible accidents eventually forced the South Side Railroad (which by then bought out the NY & Hempstead) into bankruptcy in 1880. With the rails yet in place, Hempstead residents had always hoped that the line would soon be reopened by a new concern. When the South Side RR's assets went up for auction in 1882, including the right of way leading to Hempstead Village, Henry Hilton emerged as the highest bidder, and it soon became clear that he had no intention to do anything with the line. Hilton's sole interest in purchasing the NY & Hempstead franchise was to ensure that no one would move in to compete against his Garden City rail line for which he had an ongoing lease agreement with the LIRR. He feared that a new buyer would persuade the LIRR to build a station near Hempstead Village that would serve both Hempstead and Garden City, and thus hinder the Stewart Line. Hilton was perfectly content to seeing that future West Hempstead remained as rural and undeveloped as possible so as not to disturb the growth of Garden City. For the next dozen years, residents of the south side between Valley Stream and Hempstead were left without rail service until 1893 when LIRR president Austin Corbin completed the line that currently exists, with the help of the new manager of the Garden City Co. (and later its first village president) George L. Hubbell. By that time, Hilton was out of the picture while Corbin envisioned developing West Hempstead and Hempstead Gardens into a village in the style of Garden City.

How differently would have West Hempstead evolved had someone besides Hilton purchased that road and had actually kept it operational? Well, for one thing, the current LIRR line would not have been built if the original line was left in service. The neighborhood then would probably not have been called "West Hempstead" since that name was acquired from Corbin's new LIRR station. More likely, the name Norwood would have had a better chance of sticking. (Norwood eventually faded from the landscape, probably because of the confusion caused by the existence of a town in upstate NY of the same name. But had Long Island's Norwood been given a chance to grow, it might have prevailed in keeping its name in spite of the upstate Norwood). Also, the natural growth of the neighborhood's commercial district would probably have centered around and spread out from the area just south of Halls Pond, rather than from the area west of Hempstead Village, southward. So does that mean we can blame Hilton for the existence of the Courtesy Hotel? Okay, that's a bit of a stretch. Truthfully, any such exercise in historic second-guessing leads to dangerously speculative territory....But what the heck? It's still fun to think about.

Perhaps one last measure of poetic justice remains to be pointed out. West Hempstead - the neighborhood that Hilton once endeavored to leave as undeveloped as possible and later which Austin Corbin wanted to establish as a grand development has now become home to one of Long Island's most sizable Jewish populations.

1 comment:

Sara said...

I never heard about his poetry, i just want to know more about it, sometimes we make groups to talk of our favourite books, maybe you can join us if you get whatsapp pc